2 Corinthians 12: The Problem of Spiritual Pride

First Car
First Car in 1974

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things– and the things that are not– to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:25-29 NIV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In our passage today, the Apostol Paul addresses the church in Corinth which has a problem with spiritual pride. We get a hint of this problem in the many references that Paul makes to boasting—about half (27/57) of the references to boasting in all of scripture arise in the two letters of Paul to the church in Corinth. In only these ten verses of our passage today, he uses the term, boast, 4 times.

So, what is spiritual pride? What is boasting? (2X) In our passage today, Paul uses the Greek word, καυχάομαι, which means: to take pride in something, boast, glory, pride in oneself, brag (BDAG, 4171.1). Spiritual pride consists of bragging about our relationship with God.

So what does Paul say? Paul says:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.

Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know– God knows. And I know that this man– whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (vv 2-4).

But then he comments on this ecstatic experience and says: Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. (v 1). Nothing! In fact, he goes on to say: I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses (v 5). Further, he says: Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me (v 7).  But Paul does not stop there. Paul prayers to God 3 times to relieve him of this thorn in the flesh. And God gives a surprising answer to Paul’s prayer:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (v 9). In other words, God refuses to heal Paul of this thorn in the flesh, but instead offers Paul His presence—God’s grace. And Paul is content with this answer, saying:  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (v 10).

Has God given you a thorn in the flesh?

Most of us struggle with spiritual pride in one form or another. Our pride tells us that we are special even when it is not true.  What brings together as a church is not our strengths, but our weaknesses. For not all of us are experts in the same things, but we are all in need of God’s forgiveness for our sins. So in my own case, my weakness in understanding and speaking Spanish allows me to find room in my life for God. Returning to the words of Paul: For when I am weak, then I am strong (v 10). Not in myself, but in Jesus Christ.


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2 Corinthians 11: Boast in the Lord

MrPersonalityFor if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. (2 Corinthians 11:4-5 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be an authentic Christian leader?

The Apostle Paul’s ministry came into question in Corinth for at least two reasons:  1. Paul focused on teaching rather than eloquent speaking (v 6) and 2. Paul was a volunteer evangelist (v 7).  Today, in some denominations Paul would be considered a lay pastor while others might call him a church planter.

Senior pastor of mega church—I don’t think so!  Paul was not a polished speaker and traveled with a scribe, not a worship team.  His manner of pastoral care would probably result in disciplinary action or dismissal in many mainline denominations.  The sarcastic tone displayed in this chapter might easily have been cited as a major reason—ever rob another church to support your volunteer work? (v 8).

Paul shames his adversaries in Corinth with his boasting.  A polished speaker today, as then, might be introduced citing academic credentials, the television programs hosted, important posts held, even titles earned, family background, and friends vacationed with—when the name dropping begins. And, of course, who could miss the Armani suit?

What does Paul brag about? Family heritage, number of arrests, beatings, whippings, stonings, shipwrecking, perils suffered, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, exposure to the elements, and anxieties for the church (vv 22-28).  Echoed in the words of Paul are Jesus’ own words:  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35 ESV)

So what was Paul’s motivation for “putting himself out there” for the Corinthian church?

Paul writes:  For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ (v 2).  In other words, Paul thinks of himself as the father of the bride who, oh by the way, introduced his daughter to her future husband.

For Paul, authenticity as a Christian leader means modeling Christ to the church through lifestyle ministry and teaching.

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1 Corinthians 2: Boast in the Lord

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)

The Problem of Boasting

We love to show off.  We boast about our strength, our intelligence, our courage, our beauty, our mojo, our spouses, our kids, our cool friends, our cars, our houses, our wealth, our power, our accomplishments—even our ability to speak foreign languages!  Is it any wonder that nations run over their neighbors doing the same thing?

So what does the Apostle Paul do?  Paul says to the Corinthians:  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthian 2:2 ESV).  Who could be weaker than a man publicly stripped, beaten, pierced, and hung out to dry in the hot sun?  In admitting our weaknesses—dealing with our issues—we make room for God and other people in our lives (Isaiah 29:13-14).  Why?  …In admitting our weaknesses, we vanquish pride.

The Prophet Jeremiah writes:  Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24 ESV)

Theological Implications

Theologian Richard Hays (36-39) [1] sees 6 implications of Paul’s teaching in our passage:

  1. Focus on the cross;
  2. Confront human boasting;
  3. Wisdom, in Paul’s context, is interpreted via the cross;
  4. Focusing on the cross creates a counter-cultural world;
  5. The social composition of the church should be a sign of God’s election of the foolish, the weak, the low, and the despised; and
  6. This passage directly applies Old Testament teachings (Isaiah 29:13-14, Jeremiah 9:23-24, and 1 Samuel 2:1-10) to the Corinthian (and our) church.

Do we worship with people that look just like us?  Do we focus on the music and pastoral performance?  Do we pat each other on the back constantly?  Do we search for the mysteries of the faith rather than the plain truth of Christ’s example?

Nature and Spirit

Paul makes an interesting comparison (vv 14-15) between the natural person (ψυχικὸς)[2] and the spiritual person (πνευματικῶς). The natural person rejects Christ’s teaching in the cross as foolishness; the spiritual person judges all things (v 15) against this standard.

How?  Because we have the mind of Christ (νοῦν Χριστοῦ; v 16).  Taking up our cross to follow Christ (Matthew 16:24) grants us the ability to remove the speck from our eyes (Matthew 7:1-5) and judge without hypocrisy.


[1] Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] The word in the Greek is psycho!!!


  1. How was your week?Did anything special happen?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 1?
  3. Why does Paul make such a big deal about his lack of speaking ability? Who does this remind you of?  (vv 1-2; Also:  Exodus 4:10-13)
  4. Who does our weakness make room for? (vv 3-5)
  5. What kind of wisdom is Paul referring to? (vv 4-7)
  6. What is the secret and hidden wisdom of God? (σοφίαν ἐν μυστηρίῳ τὴν ἀποκεκρυμμένην; v 7)
  7. How and to whom are these mysteries revealed? (vv 11-13)
  8. Who are the two people that Paul compares? (vv 14-15)
  9. What is the mind of God? What is it good for?  Who has it? (v 16)

1 Corinthians 2: Boast in the Lord

First Corinthians 1

First Corinthians 3

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